Nature, Civilization, and Christianity

I had a rather extraordinary experience yesterday evening.

I was driving back home from a visit to the grocery store. It must have been around 8:30 pm or so. Now that I am separated and soon to be divorced, I live by myself in an apartment in what may as well be called the suburbs of Louisville. (Lyndon for all you locals.) It is a nice area, but sufficiently dense and heavily trafficked so as to feel city-ish. Yet there are wild pockets of trees, vacant lots, and overgrown, dilapidated houses even here if one knows where to look.

I learned early on that the best way home from the grocery involved a detour from the main roads down a quiet, tree-shaded residential street. Honestly, I normally find it a boring end to a boring chore, an opportunity to think about things far removed from my surroundings. Halfway down the street is an elevated railway crossing– Lyndon is bisected by a heavily used CSX line that transports cars and chemicals back and forth between points north and east of here.

I always slow for the crossing and look both ways. There was no train. To my left, though, about seventy feet away, a full-grown doe stepped uneasily across the tracks. It was headed west, in the direction I had just left. It–she–demonstrated no awareness of my presence. She just continued softly and quietly across the tracks, utterly unfazed by trains, tracks, cars, or any of the other trappings of civilization. It was just the doe and train tracks that curved silently through a tree-laden clearing lazily towards the northeast.

I am not sure how long I idled there watching the doe. It could not have been more than four or five seconds. But it was one of those moments in which time dilates and stretches into a horizon approaching eternity. I suddenly had the feeling that I, bearing the right of way on a road built by human hands, crossing a railroad that at one time was considered synonymous with the triumph of human civilization, was really just an interloper bearing witness to something at once sacred and yet utterly at right angles to all things human. I actually looked around, somewhat in disbelief, to see if anyone else was watching. No one, no other cars, pedestrians, joggers. This lifting of the veil of humanity was by all appearances a gratuitous accident, something that had nothing to do with me or my blood kin, my groceries or my divorce, my loves, my losses, my life or my eventual death, but yet at the same time it was mine to experience and mine alone.

These were the things that came to pass in that moment. As I said, it was a rather elongated, pregnant moment, a moment seemingly contextless, carved out of the rest of my lived time.

And yet, as I thought about what I had just seen, it fit together with other things I had seen and thought. Wasn’t it just two days ago that, not half a mile from that spot, other drivers and I had to slow down and weave around a young buck lying dead in the road, obviously struck and killed by another motorist? Didn’t I know that deer tend not to migrate more than a mile or so from their home area except out of sheer necessity? Hadn’t I heard numerous stories of deer living in suburban areas even more densely populated than Lyndon? Of course I knew all these things. I also surmised that the dead buck may have been the doe’s mate, which was and is a rather forlorn thought. Yet the experience still floats free, its own island of autochthonous meaning in a rather heavily overdetermined suburban existence.

I have been haunted recently by a number of things. By far the most unexpected of them is how human civilization relates to nature. Christianity, the faith I profess, is a religion of civilization, and specifically urban civilization. The city was, and is, the hallmark of humans’ self-demarcation from “mere” nature, and for reasons I don’t fully understand, Christianity was at its origins a religion of the city. I don’t only mean that it happened to catch on and thrive in urban centers. Christianity is spiritually urban, a religion of the streets. Despite the abundance of agrarian references in the parables of Jesus, the city– the earthly Jerusalem, the heavenly one– fill Christian spirituality from its origins. Jesus exhibits little concern for re-establishing the temporal united kingdom of Israel under the lineage of David and restoring the Levitical boundaries of everyone’s farms, but he sure does care a hell of a lot about how neighbors treat one another. Christian virtues are, at bottom, virtues of coexistence among people who live in close, dense proximity, not people scattered, isolated, and tied to the land. It is only by a perverse irony of history that, in the United States, “true” Christianity has somehow come to be identified with rural culture’s reaction against the “godlessness” of the cities.

Despite being raised in “the country,” I have always been something of a city dweller at heart. The faith I found in college, just as many others lost theirs, is an urbane city faith. But I am beginning to think that my urbane existence, including its urbane, critically aware Christianity, is cut off from something mysterious and profound about nature, but for episodes like my encounter with the doe. Or, even worse, I begin to suspect that my entire existence has indeed been premised upon a relationship to nature– how could it fail to be?– but that the relationship is sick and monstrous in such proportion that it takes all of the weapons of civilization to keep me from being crushed by the mere awareness of it.

I have further thoughts here, but as they are extremely tentative and speculative I will allow this much to stand for now.

2 thoughts on “Nature, Civilization, and Christianity

  1. Ed Brenegar

    Nice post. My own experience in nature gives me perspective that humbles me and overwhelms me with awe at the wonder of creation. Pannenberg in his Anthropology in Theological Perspective writes about this fragility that we have in nature. In the city, I don’t feel that. Put me out in the wilderness, and I am back in realizing my absolute vulnerability. It is part of why I lament the loss of an agrarian context. In losing it, we lose perspective on our place in the grand scheme of creation.
    I find both Wendell Berry and John McPhee helpful interpreters of our human connection with nature.

    Reply
    1. bcubbage Post author

      Ed,

      Thanks for the references. These are names I know, but I have never read any of their books (just an essay or two of Berry’s– a sad confession for a Kentuckian). I spent too much time reading German Idealism (Kant, Hegel, etc.), for which nature really had little to teach us that we couldn’t squeeze out of the life of the subject. I was never satisfied by that belief, but I think it’s just now that I’m figuring out why.

      Fragility is certainly a good word to use here. Another part of it for me is how utterly alien nature feels sometimes. It’s like the blind spot of otherness in the heart of what is most familiar.

      Reply

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